Yesterday, Kevin DeYoung kicked the proverbial hornet's nest when he wrote a post titled, "I Don't Understand Christians Watching Game of Thrones." That post was swiftly met with a tirade of social media attacks, such as, "The Bible has many, many more violent and lewd scenes than Game of Thrones...know your Bible, Kevin," "[you] shouldn't expect consciences to be the same" and "Bad idea denouncing what you have no experience with..." Honestly, it was painful to read through the emotionally charged, biblically weak and grammatically poor responses to DeYoung's encouragement for professing believers to pursue holiness in regard to what we set before our eyes on television.
Before saying anything else, I want to confess that, over the years, I have watched television shows and movies that I ought not to have watched--entertainment that I did not watch to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31). While I have not watched Game of Thrones, I have watched a litany of other shows that are subject to similar criticisms as those raised by Piper and DeYoung. Those which I have watched have had enough sexual content and innuendos in them to fall into a category similar to that of Game of Thrones. While I have fast forwarded through as many of those scenes as I could whenever they appeared, I now confess that I should not have watched the show in the first place. I am no more like Christ and no more fruitful in the work of His Kingdom for having watched them. I have asked the Lord to forgive me for having watched things that I shouldn't have watched and that I did not watch to His glory. I say this to confess my own sinfulness at the outset.
What are we to do, then, when it comes to fix a limit on what a Christian should and should not watch? Is drawing such a line tantamount to fundamentalism? Are we to simply chalk everything up to a case of personal liberty of conscience? Is it legitimate to compare the sex in the Bible to the sex in a show like Game of Thrones? We must ask and answer these and related questions, if we are to get to the bottom of a Christian ethic regarding what we watch and what we are to abstain from watching.
To be absolutely clear, I would defend liberty of conscience--as set out in our Protestant confessions--to the grave. As the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 20.2) states:
"God alone is Lord of the conscience, and has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men, which are, in any thing, contrary to His Word; or beside it, if matters of faith, or worship. So that, to believe such doctrines, or to obey such commands, out of conscience, is to betray true liberty of conscience: and the requiring of an implicit faith, and an absolute and blind obedience, is to destroy liberty of conscience, and reason also."
This means that we must be exceedingly guarded against listening to the commandments of men or binding others to the commandments of men. To be sure, Fundamentalism has been largely built on the sinking foundation of the doctrine and commandments of men. When men and women suggest that a Christian should not drink or watch movies they are falling into the snare of what the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 2:
"If you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why as though living in the world do you subject yourself to regulations: Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle; all of which all concern things which perish with the using--according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh" (Col. 2:22-23).
Clearly there is a word of warning here for all of us. Telling others that they cannot eat or drink some particular food or drink (even--and especially--under the notion that others have been hurt by such food or drink), or that they cannot watch television or go to the movies, does not change someone's heart. In fact, it gives people a sense that true religion is found in external conformity to ascetic doctrines of men. The Apostle went so far as to call this sort of thing "self-made religion." This does not belong to the realm of true Christian freedom and holiness that we gain by our union with Christ.
For this reason, I believe that it is unwise to have a checklist with which to bind someone's conscience. However, there must be guiding principles for us to follow if we are to navigate our way through this life, regarding that which we watch on television.
We would all admit that the Bible forbids certain things that make their way into film or television. There has to be a standard by which we can determine what is and what is not sinful for us to watch. In Psalm 101:3, David says, "I will set nothing wicked before my eyes." Even if David is employing metaphorical language, he is doing so in such a way as to intimate that we should not be entertaining evil. Watching gratuitous sex scenes never builds up. Watching gratuitous sex scenes never strengthens our hearts to fight against sexual immorality. In fact, I would argue (and, I will most certainly argue with you) that doing so desensitizes us to sexual sin and makes us more susceptible to falling into it. I have never had a friend tell me, "I just saw this intense sex scene on such and such a show and I've never been so close to the Lord." That has never happened in all of human history, and, honestly, it never will. When we lay sophistry aside, we all know that we should be guarding our hearts and minds a whole lot more, not a whole lot less, in a day when wickedness pours through the television like floodwaters.
What about the artistic element to cinematography? Isn't there an artistic element to the shows that we watch? This is not as easy to answer as some many suppose. Every true believer will readily admit that watching porn is sinful (I trust that we would all say that pornography is not only sinful, but that it is hellish in nature). However, what if someone argued that porn has an element of artistic value? After all, the human body is beautiful and the act of sexual intimacy--in the proper context--is full of beauty. So, can we chalk porn up to artistic expressions of beauty with which Christians may entertain themselves? What if it had a great plot, storytelling and character development accompanying the sexual scenes? The biblical answer is a resounding and emphatic, "No!"--for the simple reason that we, who are united to Christ, are to "abstain from fleshly lusts which wars against the soul." God calls us to "flee sexual immorality" (1 Cor. 6:18), and warns us that those who practice such things "will not inherit the Kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9). To this end, we must ever guard against every form of calling "evil good, and good evil" (Isaiah 5:20).
Self-deception is a real and present danger for believers. Many convince themselves that watching "soft porn" (because that is precisely the secular classification that many of the scenes in television shows today would have received 20 years ago) in the opening episodes on a television show isn't that bad because "while there is intense violence and sexual scenes in the opening episodes, the show mellows out in later seasons." That, it seems to me, is equivalent to us saying, "I can indulge in a little fleshly desire because it is not as bad as it could be" or "I only engaged in this sin or that sin for a little while because it didn't last that long."
Add to this the fact that the wickedness with which we are confronted today in television and film has risen progressively and almost imperceptibly over the years. We are all like the "frog in the kettle"--being cooked without noticing that, all along the way, the temperature was rising a little at a time. While there were plenty of sexually immoral shows and movies 20 years ago, the sexual immorality was predominately heterosexual adultery in nature. Now, we have intense homosexual, multiple partner and S&M scenes on many--if not most--television shows. The point is simple: heterosexual immorality was never enough. The world was not content with "some" sexual sin. There is an ever intensifying aspect to what Hollywood portrays.
We must not forget that Hollywood is also targeting every sort of person with demographically driven sexual sin. Housewives are the main intended audience of movies like Magic Mike and 50 Shades of Grey. In all of this, there is a systemic unravelling of the foundations of morality that should leave Christians deeply disturbed. It can and will only get worse; and, we better wake up to the dangers of it for our own souls and the souls of our children!
What about the claim that the Bible has a lot more violence and gratuitous sex than Hollywood? While acknowledging that fundamentalism has unhelpfully downplayed the raw nature of Scripture regarding human depravity, the Bible sets out violence and sex--not as good things with which to entertain us but as evil things to be abhorred and fled by the covenant people of God. Even when the Scriptural portrayal of sexual sin is set out, the Holy Spirit normally employs discretionary language (the graphic language of Ezekiel and Hosea are exceptions). The Scripture gives us cameos of depravity to show us our need for the Redeemer. Hollywood is not giving us these things to drive us to Christ--even if one were to argue that the depravity portrayed in shows and movies reminds them of the fallenness of this world.
Frankly, it would be impossible to treat each and every objection to what John Piper and Kevin DeYoung have suggested about watching Game of Thrones (a 1000 page book would need to be written). But, what is written in Scripture ought to be enough to make us want to be more careful about what we put before our eyes, not less careful. If we cannot watch something to the glory of God (and you honestly have to answer the question in your conscience as to whether you are doing so), then we shouldn't be watching it. That is not fundamentalist legalism. It is a call to radical holiness for the glory of God. God the Father chose us and God the Son purchased us with His blood so that we would be holy and without blame before Him in love. Let's live as those who have been "bought with a price" (1 Cor. 6:20)--even with the precious blood of Jesus.